Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, gives a speech outside Ennahda’s headquarters in Tunis, on Oct. 27, 2014. Tunisia’s Ennahda party was the first Islamist movement to secure power after the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolts, but it conceded defeat in the 2014 elections. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)

After its defeat in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections last October, the Islamist movement Ennahda has seemed much diminished. It has avoided the political spotlight except to repeat its commitment to the democratic transition and to the new coalition government, in which it holds a small, symbolic role.

The transition from dictatorship to fledgling democracy still looks like a success four years on from the first Arab Spring uprising. Despite real economic and security challenges, Tunisia has so far avoided the violence and repression now so familiar elsewhere in the region. Ennahda has played no small part in that achievement. It governed in coalition with secular parties after winning the 2011 elections and then compromised its Islamizing ambitions to draft a new, widely supported constitution. Early in 2014, it relinquished power to a technocratic government after acknowledging popular frustration over security concerns. Then it accepted defeat in last year’s elections and promised to work with and not against its political rivals. In public, it argues that success lies in consensus and compromise.

However, in private, last year’s election defeat came as a shock among the Ennahda faithful. It triggered a difficult internal debate about the movement’s identity and a reassessment of what it means to be Islamist in light of the new freedoms and challenges of the Arab Spring. How should the movement reconcile its commitment to a civil political program that refrains from proposing sharia law with its historic Islamization project? How can it mitigate the damage of elite-level political concessions on grassroots social activism? The culmination of this debate will be Ennahda’s decision to either continue as a simultaneously political and religious organization or instead divide itself in two for the first time in its history and become a political party and a separate religious social movement.

The defeat should not have been a surprise. Opinion polls, both in the Tunisian media and in private surveys conducted by Ennahda itself, showed that the Islamist movement had lost support since its victory in Tunisia’s first free elections in October 2011. Ennahda members themselves admitted they suffered from their experience in government, when, even though a new constitution was written, not enough was done to solve Tunisia’s pressing socio-economic and security challenges. In Sousse, a historic coastal city where I have spent most of the past 18 months researching Ennahda, voters were critical about the slow pace of economic change and continued high unemployment. A recent nationwide study of exit polling showed that voters wanted to balance civil liberties and security concerns.

Many in Ennahda were frustrated that the movement’s leadership chose not to endorse a candidate in the presidential elections last year against their rival Beji Caid Essebsi, who went on to win. They were disappointed a second time when the leadership accepted a role inside the coalition government led by Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party, which had won the parliamentary vote on a strongly anti-Islamist campaign. Ennahda’s most senior advisory body, the Shura Council, was initially reluctant to endorse entry into the coalition and Abdelhamid Jelassi, a senior leader, even briefly stepped down in protest.

Among the movement’s lower ranks there is still much discomfort today. It would have been better, they say, to go into opposition rather than form an alliance with a party like Nidaa Tounes, with its awkward mix of leftist and former regime elements. “We could have been in the opposition and presented a model of a constructive opposition,” said one Ennahda member, who resigned his position as a local bureau leader because he did not agree with the movement’s entry into the coalition. “That would have allowed us to restructure the movement, to rebuild it on a correct basis.”

Ennahda’s leaders wanted to retain a voice in government, but they were also driven by fear. They saw a risk of another campaign against the Islamists similar to former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s repression of Ennahda in the early 1990s or President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s recent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. One member of Ennahda’s Shura Council judged that joining the coalition would prevent an alliance of leftist parties with Nidaa, which he feared would lead only to repression. “Their strategy would be to eradicate Ennahda and to go back to the scenario of the 1990s and 2000s in which Ennahda returns to prison,” he said.

Now the movement is preparing for a congress to discuss whether to remain both political party and religious movement or to divide itself in two, what the movement calls “the ways of managing the project” (subul tasrif al-mashru’) or simply “joining or splitting” (al-wasl aw al-fasl). The decision will be informed first by a major internal evaluation of Ennahda’s actions from the clash with Ben Ali in the late 1980s until the present day. Many in the movement now accept that mistakes were made: they pushed too hard in confronting the Ben Ali regime and failed to secure political allies when they were most needed. Political overreach came at the cost of their Islamization project and ultimately led to the dismantling of the movement for two decades and the imprisonment of tens of thousands of their members.

Those in favor of a split argue that because Ennahda is no longer an underground movement resisting a dictatorship it needs to become a modern, technocratic, conservative political party that offers policies aimed at both Islamist and non-Islamist voters. They contend that the party would still have Islam as a moral guide but, in line with Ennahda’s current position, would not seek to implement sharia as a strict code of law, instead focusing on the broader objectives of the sharia (maqasid al-shari’a) such as freedom, rights, civility and equality. Preaching and social outreach would then be assigned to a separate movement running mosque classes and local charitable associations, in which preachers could distance themselves from the political concessions of party leaders.

However, others in the movement warn that splitting Ennahda would leave a weakened political party that would become isolated from its societal base. “If you separate us from our Islamic roots it’s a risk,” said one local Ennahda leader. “We should specialize in our preferred area of work but under one name. We are both a party and a movement.” Such leaders argue that separation would undermine the comprehensive nature of the Islamist project, which, since the founding of the Islamic Tendency Movement, the forerunner of Ennahda, in 1981, has always sought to unite both the religious and the political. One Ennahda local bureau leader said separation carried negative connotations and would leave individuals unclear about what part of their work was politics and what part was preaching (da’wa). “There are members within Ennahda who can’t understand why we should have this separation of our character and this schizophrenia,” he said.

It is not yet clear which argument will win out. Until recently it seemed that separation was the most likely possibility, but several guest speakers from Tunisia and abroad at recent internal Ennahda discussions have advised the movement against separation. The decision is due at a much-delayed congress later this year, perhaps in October, but may be postponed further if a clear choice does not emerge. Many within Ennahda feel that the debates and discussions have yet to resolve the problem of what precisely it means to be a conservative political party inspired by an Islamic reference in a new democracy. “All these debates haven’t answered the questions inside the movement,” said the Ennahda bureau leader who resigned his post. “They haven’t given the members of the movement a clear vision or project that we can market to society.” Ennahda still needs a major rethinking of its ideology and political vision before it can recover from last year’s electoral defeat.

Rory McCarthy is a doctoral candidate in oriental studies at the University of Oxford and a former Middle East correspondent for the Guardian.